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Shadow Wars

What's the difference between a spook and a special operator?

What happens when the covert goes semi-overt, and the overt goes semi-covert?

That's not one of those sadistic Sphinxian riddles designed to make children feel dim-witted -- It's one of the many unanswered questions created by recent seismic shifts in the national security landscape.

Particularly since 9/11, the lines between the military and the intelligence community have gotten fuzzy. The CIA has moved increasingly into paramilitary activities, while the military has moved increasingly into what look like covert intelligence activities. These trends are the result of natural (and largely praiseworthy) efforts by DoD and the intelligence community to respond to changing threats with creativity and agility -- but the end result is confusion and lack of accountability.

The covert goes (semi)-overt

Start with the intelligence community. After the CIA debacles of the '60s and '70s (Bay of Pigs, anyone? Poisoned cigar?), the intelligence community shifted away from lethal covert action. An executive order prohibited assassinations, and Congress tightened covert-action notification requirements. Yes, espionage remained a dangerous game, operating in a sort of legal twilight. But in the 1980s and '90s the intelligence community focused mainly on collection and analysis rather than on the covert use of force. The 9/11 Commission report concluded that prior to 9/11, many in the intelligence community in fact believed that using covert lethal force was prohibited.

After 9/11, this changed fast. CIA personnel were the first American government agents to enter Afghanistan, paving the way for Army Special Forces; in some cases, CIA personnel reportedly fought (and died) alongside Afghan Northern Alliance soldiers. CIA personnel also reportedly participated actively in the Battle of Tora Bora and Operation Anaconda, and in the years that followed, the CIA has substantially beefed up its paramilitary side, recruiting heavily within the military special operations community.

Today, the CIA is widely reported to engage in raids against high-value terrorist targets. In particular, the CIA is reportedly responsible for scores -- possibly hundreds -- of drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere. Collectively, CIA drone strikes are thought to have killed as many as several thousand people.

I keep using that weasely word "reportedly" because officially none of this is happening. Or, rather, although the government is happy enough to take credit for turning live terrorists into dead terrorists, the government officially insists, "Whether or not the CIA has the authority to be, or is in fact, directly involved in targeted lethal operations remains classified." What's more, "Notwithstanding widespread reports that drone strikes occur, the CIA has never confirmed or denied whether it has any involvement or intelligence interest in any of those drone strikes."

Still not clear enough for you? In response to recent Freedom of Information Act requests for records relating to drone strikes, the CIA was unambiguously ambiguous: "The CIA can neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence of responsive records because the existence or nonexistence of any such records is a currently and properly classified fact that is exempt from release."

So is the CIA conducting lethal drone strikes, or not?

You be the judge. The investigative journalism group Pro Publica has compiled a detailed list of press reports in which anonymous senior officials have discussed those reported CIA drone strikes, together with seemingly confirmatory quotes from several guys who ought to know, including Secretary of Defense (and former CIA director) Leon Panetta and President Obama. 

In 2009, for instance, then-CIA Director Panetta responded to a question about CIA drone strikes by saying, "These operations have been very effective.... I can assure you that in terms of that particular area, it is very precise, and it is very limited in terms of collateral damage, and, very frankly, it's the only game in town in terms of confronting and trying to disrupt the al-Qaeda leadership." Hmmm.

Two years later, after taking over the helm at DoD, Panetta cheerfully told a military audience, "Having moved from the CIA to the Pentagon, obviously I have a hell of a lot more weapons available to me in this job than I had at the CIA, although the Predators weren't bad."

What happens when activities that are officially covert become so extensive and sustained that they essentially move into the overt world? Someone is using drones to go after Pakistani militants, and the U.S. military says it ain't them. After a decade of drone strikes and dead bodies, it gets harder and harder to insist that what the CIA is (reportedly!) doing is covert.

As former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair put it in December 2011, "Covert action that goes on for years doesn't generally stay covert.... [I]f something has been going for a long period of time, somebody else ought to do it, not intelligence agencies."

But even as covert CIA lethal activities appear to have become more and more overt, more and more military activities appear to be moving into the covert realm. In particular, the role of special operations forces -- Navy SEALs, Army "Green Berets," Air Force Special Tactics, and the like -- has dramatically expanded in recent years, and special operations forces are increasingly engaging in activities designed to remain unattributable and unacknowledged.

The overt goes (semi)-covert

After 9/11, the expansion of special operations forces (SOF) activities was virtually inevitable. America's conventional general-purpose forces are fantastically good with tanks and artillery and moving large numbers of people and machines from one place to another, and as the 1991 Gulf War demonstrated, they can roll over enemy armies with ease. But as we know, terrorist organizations don't fight like conventional armies. They eschew uniforms and traditional military command structures and rely instead on stealth, subterfuge, and asymmetrical attack. They blend easily into local civilian populations. As a result, they often confound U.S. conventional forces.

Special operations forces, in contrast, were designed to handle unconventional threats. Various organizations within the SOF community emphasize different skills. SEALs take pride in their ability to conduct lightning raids on high-value targets. (The raid on Osama bin Laden's compound is a classic example.) Army Special Forces, meanwhile, emphasize their ability to keep a low profile and work closely with foreign armed forces, something that takes sophisticated linguistic and cultural skills as well as all-around military expertise. (Full disclosure: My husband is one of these guys, and he's awesome.) Other organizations within the SOF community bring their own unique skills to the table -- including, not coincidentally, skills related to the operation of armed drones.

Put all these skills together, and you have a group of military personnel with precisely the skills needed for the long war. No surprise, then, that both the Bush and Obama administrations have come to rely heavily on special operations forces. Army Special Forces helped Afghanistan's Northern Alliance defeat the Taliban in the fall of 2001, and SEALs played a crucial role during Operation Anaconda.

Since those early post-9/11 days, special operations forces have played an ever-larger role in an expanding number of countries. SOF personnel embedded in over a dozen U.S. embassies conduct counterterrorism-related information operations, and SOF personnel embedded with foreign militaries continue to serve as trainers and advisers. SOF personnel can offer quiet assistance to foreign governments interested in capturing or killing terrorists in their territory, and, if necessary, they can take direct action themselves. They have increasingly been relied upon to capture or kill suspected terrorists outside of "hot battlefields," sometimes through quick cross-border raids, and increasingly through the use of armed, unmanned aerial vehicles.

Much of the time, their precise role is -- of necessity -- kept secret. Foreign governments may want U.S. military help, but only if they can deny any American role. And when military operations raise difficult questions about sovereignty, keeping them secret is often less diplomatically embarrassing for all concerned. Still other military activities rely on secrecy even more directly: For instance, some foreign information operations may be ineffective if everyone knows that a particular radio show or television program is U.S.-funded.

Of course, engaging in covert activities has traditionally been an intelligence community job, not a military job. The CIA and other intelligence agencies must report to the House and Senate select committees on intelligence, but the military reports to the armed services committees, and both the Pentagon and the armed services committees have a strong aversion to letting the intelligence committees horn in on their territory. Regardless of who's doing what, though, all covert activity requires a presidential finding and subsequent notification of the intelligence committee (even if just the Gang of Eight) -- a fact that gives the Pentagon a strong incentive to insist that whatever it is that special operations forces are doing, it's not covert activities.

Conveniently, the Intelligence Authorization Act, which lays out most of the rules for covert activities, exempts "traditional military activities" from its definition of covert action. The definition and scope of "traditional military activities," however, remains hotly contested.

The increasing fuzziness of the line between the intelligence community and the military creates confusion and uncertainty: Who decides which agency should take the lead, and on what basis? How are activities coordinated and de-conflicted? What's the chain of command? What law governs each entity's activities? Must the CIA comply with the laws of war? Does covert military activity risk depriving the military personnel involved of protection under the Geneva Conventions? No one seems to know -- or at least, no one's saying.

All this creates a strange irony. As the administration continues to expand its use of lethal force overseas, the CIA is fighting to insist that its alleged drone strikes are and must remain covert. At the same time, the Pentagon is fighting to insist that its secret special operations missions should not be categorized as covert action. In both cases, the intent -- or at least the result -- is to shield the activities at issue from scrutiny. The CIA wants to keep journalists and the ACLU off its back; the military mostly just wants the intelligence committees to leave it alone.  

Regardless, the end result is the same: When the covert goes semi-overt, and the overt goes semi-covert, the public is left in the dark.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Take Two Drones and Call Me in the Morning

The perils of our addiction to remote-controlled war.

Last week, I argued that many common objections to U.S. drone strikes don't hold up well under scrutiny. For the most part, complaints that "drones kill civilians" or "drones kill from a distance" are red herrings -- every weapons system can cause civilian casualties, and planes, Tomahawk missiles, and snipers all enable killing from a distance. We should worry about armed drone technologies for a different set of reasons: By lowering or disguising the costs of lethal force, their availability can blind us to the potentially dangerous longer-term consequences of our strategic choices.

Armed drones lower the perceived costs of using lethal force in at least three ways.

First, drones reduce the dollar cost of using lethal force inside foreign countries. Most drones are a bargain compared with the available alternatives. Manned aircraft, for instance, are quite expensive: Lockheed Martin's F-22 fighter jets cost about $150 million each; F-35s are $90 million; and F-16s are $55 million. But the 2011 price of a Reaper drone was $28.4 million, while Predator drones cost only about $5 million to make. (And Hellfire missiles are a steal at less than $60,000 each; you could buy one with a home equity loan.)

Second, relying on drone attacks reduces the domestic political costs of using lethal force. Sending special operations forces after a suspected terrorist places the lives of U.S. personnel at risk, and full-scale invasions and occupations endanger even more American lives. In contrast, using armed drones eliminates all short-term risks to the lives of U.S. personnel involved in the operations. (And because drone attacks don't involve "sustained fighting … active exchanges of fire … [or] U.S. ground troops," any need for congressional notification and approval under the War Powers Resolution can conveniently be avoided.)

Third, by reducing accidental civilian casualties, precision drone technologies reduce the perceived moral and reputational costs of using lethal force. Contrary to popular belief, most U.S. officials care greatly about avoiding civilian casualties. (Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as a conscience, even in CIA officials.) Even those willing to discount the moral cost of civilian deaths understand the reputational costs: Dead civilians upset local populations and host-country governments, alienate the international community, and sometimes even disturb the sleep of American voters.

I don't believe that humans can be reduced to Homo economicus, but as a group, government officials are remarkably sensitive to financial, political, and reputational costs. Thus, when new technologies appear to reduce the costs of using lethal force, their threshold for deciding to use lethal force correspondingly drops.

If killing a suspected terrorist based in Yemen or Somalia will endanger expensive manned aircraft, the lives of U.S. troops, and/or the lives of many innocent civilians, U.S. officials will reserve such killings for situations of extreme urgency and gravity (stopping another 9/11, finally getting Osama bin Laden). But if all that appears to be at risk is an easily replaceable drone, officials will be tempted to use lethal force more and more casually.

And this, of course, is exactly what has been happening over the last four years. Increasingly, drones strikes have targeted militants who are lower and lower down the terrorist food chain, rather than terrorist masterminds. Strikes increasingly target individuals who pose speculative, distant future threats rather than only those posing urgent or catastrophic threats. And drone strikes have spread ever further from "hot" battlefields, migrating from Pakistan to Yemen to Somalia (and perhaps to Mali and the Philippines as well). Although drone strikes are believed to have killed more than 3,000 people since 2004, only a tiny fraction of the dead appear to have been so-called "high-value targets."

These numbers are just estimates culled from news stories, NGO reports, and rumors. Although people tend to notice several-thousand dead bodies, Barack Obama's administration still refuses to openly acknowledge that the CIA uses drone strikes anywhere other than Pakistan (and this was acknowledged only recently and grudgingly).

But though drone technologies enable the United States to reduce some of the costs of using lethal force inside the borders of other states, overreliance on drones may have potentially devastating costs of its own.

For one thing, overreliance on drones reflects a dangerous blurring of the boundaries between "war" and "non-war," with grave consequences for the rule of law. As I wrote in an earlier column, whether one regards drone strikes as lawful acts of war or as extrajudicial killings (murders, in plain English) depends wholly on how far one is willing to stretch the law of war in efforts to make it fit an increasingly unprecedented situation.

Defenders of the administration's increasing reliance on drone strikes outside "hot" battlefields assert that the law of war is applicable -- in any place and at any time -- with regard to any person the administration deems a combatant. Such an assertion wouldn't be troubling if the United States were in a conventional conflict with the uniformed forces of an enemy state. If that were the case, it would be fairly easy for journalists or moderately intrepid citizens to confirm the basic facts justifying government claims about the applicability of the law of war: The presence of thousands of uniformed troops shooting at one another is hard to misconstrue.

But outside Afghanistan, the United States is not in a conventional war. It's in an open-ended conflict with an inchoate, undefined adversary -- and administration assertions about who is a combatant and what constitutes a threat are entirely non-falsifiable because they're based wholly on undisclosed evidence.

In this murky context, it's facile to assert that the law of war "obviously" applies to all U.S. drone strikes and leave it at that. As I wrote on Aug. 29, that amounts, in practice, to a claim that the executive branch has the unreviewable power to kill anyone, anywhere, at any time, based on secret criteria and secret information discussed in a secret process by largely anonymous individuals.

Law exists to restrain untrammeled power. Sure, it's possible to make a plausible legal argument justifying each and every U.S. drone strike -- but this merely suggests that we're working with a legal framework that has begun to outlive its usefulness. The real question isn't whether U.S. drone strikes are "legal." The real question is: Do we really want to live in a world in which the U.S. government's justification for killing is so malleable?

Defenders of administration policy argue that these criticisms miss the mark because -- insiders insist -- executive branch officials go through an elaborate process in which they carefully consider every possible issue before determining that a drone strike is lawful. No doubt they do. But formal processes tend to further normalize once-exceptional activities -- and "trust us" is a pretty shaky foundation for the rule of law.

Here's another reason to worry about the U.S. overreliance on drone strikes: Other states -- and ultimately, nonstate actors -- will follow America's example, and the results won't be pretty.

Right now, the United States has a decided technological advantage when it comes to armed drones, but that won't last long. The country should use this window to advance a robust legal and normative framework that will help protect against abuses by those states whose leaders can rarely be trusted. Right now, the country is doing the exact opposite: Instead of articulating norms about transparency and accountability, the United States is effectively handing China, Russia, and every other repressive state a playbook for how to get away with murder.

Consider Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev's Russia, in which the life expectancy of dissidents, inquisitive journalists, and unwanted political rivals is already quite short. At the moment, the Russian government at least feels constrained to disclaim responsibility when a troublesome citizen is conveniently murdered. But with the United States putting forward an infinitely flexible interpretation of the law of war, why should Russia bother to cover its tracks in the future?

Far simpler just to shrug off the next dissident's death (whether by drone strike in Chechnya or radioactive sushi in London) with a dignified news release. The dead "dissident"? A combatant in Russia's war with terrorists. The evidence? That's classified, but all actions taken are lawful and subject to a rigorous internal Kremlin review process. You got a problem with that? To quote Obama, "There are classified issues, and a lot of what you read in the press … isn't always accurate.… My most sacred duty … is to keep the … people safe."

Here's one final reason to worry about drone technologies: They enable a "short-term fix" approach to counterterrorism, one that relies excessively on eliminating specific individuals deemed to be a threat, without much discussion of whether this strategy is likely to produce long-term security gains.

Drone strikes -- lawful or not, justifiable or not -- sow fear among the "guilty" and the innocent alike. What impact will they ultimately have on the stability of those societies? To what degree -- especially as we reach further and further down the terrorist food chain -- are we actually creating new grievances? As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asked during the Iraq war, are we creating terrorists faster than we kill them? And will our increasing use of cross-border strikes have an impact on global stability, undoing fragile post-World War II bargains about sovereignty and the use of force?

As far as I can tell, none of these questions is being discussed within the Obama administration in any structured or systematic way. Meanwhile, U.S. reliance on drone strikes continues to increase. And because so much about U.S. drone strikes is classified, it's almost impossible for journalists, regional experts, human rights groups, or the general public to weigh in with informed views.

There's nothing preordained about how we use new technologies, but by lowering the perceived costs of using lethal force, drone technologies enable a particularly invidious sort of mission creep. When covert killings are the rare exception, they don't pose a fundamental challenge to the legal, moral, and political framework in which we live. But when covert killings become a routine and ubiquitous tool of U.S. foreign policy, everything is up for grabs.

JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images